By SAUL HANSELL
The New York Times
February 4, 2006
Who is sending threatening e-mail to a teenager? Who is saying
disparaging things about a company on an Internet message board? Who
is communicating online with a suspected drug dealer?
These questions, and many more like them, are asked every day of the
companies that provide Internet service and run Web sites. And even
though these companies promise to protect the privacy of their users,
they routinely hand over the most intimate information in response to
legal demands from criminal investigators and lawyers fighting civil
Such data led directly to a suspect in a school bombing threat; it has
also been used by the authorities to track child pornographers and
computer intruders, and has become a tool in civil cases on matters
from trade secrets to music piracy. In St. Louis, records of a
suspect's online searches for maps proved his undoing in a serial-
killing case that had gone unsolved for a decade.
In short, just as technology is prompting Internet companies to
collect more information and keep it longer than before, prosecutors
and civil lawyers are more readily using that information.
When it comes to e-mail and Internet service records, "the average
citizen would be shocked to find out how adept your average law
enforcement officer is at finding information," said Paul Ohm, who
recently left the Justice Department's computer crime and intellectual
The issue has come to the fore because of a Justice Department
request to four major Internet companies for data about their users'
search queries. While America Online, Yahoo and Microsoft complied
with the request, Google is resisting it. That case does not involve
information that can be linked to individuals, but it has cast new
light on what privacy, if any, Internet users can expect for the data
trail they leave online.
The answer, in many cases, is clouded by ambiguities in the law that
governs electronic communication like telephone calls and e-mail. In
many cases, the law requires law enforcement officials to meet a
higher standard to read a person's e-mail than to get copies of his
financial or medical records.
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